Indiana, 1817. The entire nation, only 40 years old and a few years removed from a second war of independence, is raw. Men, women, and children alike must battle nature and disease to survive in remote log cabins. This is young Abraham Lincoln's world. Spanning three years of the future president's childhood, The Better Angels explores his family, the hardships that shaped him, the tragedy that marked him forever, and the two women who guided him to immortality.Written by
Simultaneously Ahistorical and American, Universal and Particular.
What is so immediately intoxicating about this film is the cinematography. From the first frame you are pulled into the experience as viscerally as moving image can manage. Albeit this is not, per se, immediate. The film actually begins with an extended introduction to the score or, more specifically, the leitmotif that will accompany you throughout much of the trajectory. This brings me to the main idea: this piece is ahistorical in many ways. Rather than a score befitting the time period, you make your acquaintance with a modern sounding slightly more minimal arc of sounds which speak more to the mood of the film than to anything aimed at a period drama. A fortiori, the decision to begin the film with this extended immersion into music—a medium beautifully unconstrained by the more limited potential of physical form is a titillating foreshadowing of what the director is after here. This movie intends to touch only on themes that span the course of human history (and perhaps transcend it entirely given the religious connotations often present (similar to The Tree of Life in that regard)) through the presentation of mood, love, loss, family, discipline, isolation, friendship, freedom etc. What makes this so successful is not the scope alone. Any film can be ambitious and fall flat but this endeavor found it's successful portrayal of the universal through specific attention to the particular (much as poetry does (and much as The Tree of Life did)). There is great attention to detail in this film and all of the powerful themes conveyed here are tightly woven into the fabric of a very historically particular life and time. This is what is so magical about The Better Angels. It is ambitiously universal in everything it intends to convey and it does so through a radical focus on the absolutely particular. This is a film about Abraham Lincoln's childhood and that is what you see... But!– You never even hear his name. To an outsider, uninitiated into American Culture and History, it would be the same experience. The detail is so zoomed in that only the most fundamental elements of the life and character portrayed here can be seen. The details that one speaks of in a history class are nowhere to be found. This film pulls you to two opposite ends of an essential spectrum of human knowledge. On one end: abstraction to the universal and on the other: absolute particularity. It is the way that the former permeates the latter that makes this film an exceptional work of cinema. Roger Ebert correctly daubed it: "a genuine American art film", and it is indeed that and yet more. This more, on it's own, however is insufficient. Being a genuine American film alone is insufficient. Combining the two such that the universal emerges from the details and routines of an American woodland childhood is what strikes gold. The message and medium chosen were paired together exquisitely and make for an immersive experience of cinematic poetry and thematic meditation. The Better Angels is indeed utterly American, and yet wholly universal all at once. I hope this enhances your experiences of it.
p.s. I wrote this in an inspired frenzy so please excuse any potential iPhone typos and read my roving ramblings charitably. Cheers!
p.p.s. It's quite beautiful that this is a film which defies typical cinematic structure so thoroughly that I am at a loss for how one could even potentially construct a description capable of containing spoilers. I don't think it can be done.
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